The Political Parties of Northern Ireland Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Political Parties of Northern Ireland

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Although Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, and although it has 17 members of Parliament in Westminster, the parties of Northern Ireland do not represent any of the parties from mainland Britain. Since the 1960s, no representatives of any of the main British parties have been elected to represent constituents in Northern Ireland.

Factional Politics

Unfortunately, the sectarian troubles in Northern Ireland (since the late 1960s, at least) have affected all life in Northern Ireland, including politics. The split is between Unionist parties that wish to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Nationalist parties that wish Ireland to be united as one country. Northern Ireland is, therefore, strangely unique among the three non-English countries of the UK as it does not have a party seeking independence, just those seeking different positions of dependence.

The Unionists

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is seen as the moderate voice of unionism. The party stems from the Unionist Party, which fought the original and subsequent Irish Home Rule Bills of Gladstone in the 19th Century. It has also, for most of Northern Ireland's history, been the main party - it has provided all of the Northern Irish Parliament's Prime Ministers and, until 2001, had the largest share of the unionist vote.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is a more fundamental strand of unionism. It is the party set up by Reverend Ian Paisley in the 1960s. The DUP were the main orchestrators of the 'Ulster Says No' campaign in protest of the Dublin agreement, the first of the recent agreements of co-operation between London and Dublin, the Anglo-Irish agreement. They also remain emphatic that they will never consult with Nationalist terrorists. They have two ministers in the Assembly, but they refuse to sit in executive meetings where the ministers of Sinn Fein are also present. In the 2001 general election, for the first time, they outpolled the UUP but still had fewer seats in Westminster.

The Popular Unionist Party is one of only two other Unionist parties to have returned an MP to Westminster. The party sprung up around James Kilfedder, who, until his death in 1995, had been MP for North Down since 1979. He was initially an Ulster Unionist but in 1979 he stood as an independent candidate, causing the party to be established. The party disbanded soon after Kilfedder's death and its place was taken by the other localised Unionist party.

The United Kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP) stemmed from Robert McCartney who stood in the 1987 general election in North Down as a independent, then in 1993 as a Real Unionist. He formed the UKUP and ran the Westminster by-election in 1995 following the death of the long-time MP Jim Kilfedder. In the Assembly elections his party won four seats, despite being opposed to the Belfast Agreement, but, due to his leadership, the other three left to set up the Northern Ireland Unionist Party. He lost his Westminster seat in 2001.

The Northern Ireland Unionist Party was set up when three members of the UKUP had a fall-out with their leader Robert McCartney. They stand for the same things as the UKUP, but didn't agree with its leadership.

The Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) are one of the parties that represent the Loyalist paramilitaries, in their case the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force. They first had a voice on the Northern Irish agenda when they were one of the top ten parties in the vote to elect members talks about the way forward. They had two MLAs elected to the Northern Irish Assembly in 1998, David Erskine and Billy Hutchinson.

The Ulster Democratic Party represent the other Loyalist paramilitary groups, the Ulster Defence Association and the Loyalist Volunteer Force. Like the PUP, they had representatives at the peace talks but failed to get any members elected to the assembly. They are still active in council politics in their strongholds.

The Northern Ireland Conservative and Unionist Party are the same in essence as the Conservative Party on the mainland but they are not recognised by the mainland Conservative Party as full members. Their biggest achievement in Northern Ireland was being, at one time, the largest party in North Down Borough Council. However, they failed to be one of the top ten parties represented at the peace talks.

The Nationalists

The Social Democratic and Labour Party was formed in 1970 following the election the previous year of the first independent Nationalists to the Stormont Parliament. The first leaders were Gerry Fitt and his deputy John Hume. These two men were to be the voice and prominent face of nationalist politics in Northern Ireland for the next 30 years. Until the 2001 general election, when Sinn Fein outpolled them, they had the largest share of the Nationalist/Republican vote.

The name 'Sinn Fein' means 'We ourselves'. Formed in 1905, Sinn Fein is one of the oldest established political parties in Ireland. Towards the end of the 19th Century they were the left-wingers of the Irish Home Rule Party in Westminster before taking the nickname they had been given as their official party name. They stand for an independent Irish Republic and were prominent in the 1916 Easter uprising which led to the establishment of the Irish Republic. They are the political wing of the Irish Republican Army and still seek to have a fully-independent Ireland including the six counties of the North.

The Workers Party was formed in 1982 in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. It was originally called 'Sinn Fein - The Workers Party' and, unlike the other parties, set out to represent the working classes. It is the most socialist of all the parties. Although it would like to be seen as an all-encompassing party, its support of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s means that Unionists tend to view it as a Nationalist party.

The Cross-community Parties

The Alliance Party was formed in 1970 to give political expression to those who felt that Nationalist and Unionist political parties did not reflect their political views. For a long time it was the only political party to receive significant support and membership from both Catholics and Protestants. As an inclusive party, they stand by the primary objective of meeting the needs of all the people of Northern Ireland, irrespective of religion. Although they have never returned an MP to Westminster, they are aligned to the Liberal Democrats, who nominated John Alderdyce for a life peerage for his work in Northern Ireland (he later became the first speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly).

The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition was set up so that women's voices would be heard during the talks process as the talks about devolution often had very few women involved. They often acted as mediators during the run up to the Good Friday Agreement, and, as a result, returned two members to the Assembly in the first elections.

The Labour Party, Northern Ireland was set up because, until 2002, you could not live in Northern Ireland and be a member of the Labour Party. Initially, as with the Conservatives, it did not have the recognition of the mainland party with which it was so closely associated. Like several of the other smaller parties, the Labour Party, Northern Ireland, failed to win seats in the assembly, despite having sent delegates to the talks which resulted in the Good Friday Agreement.

The Green Party are the same as the Green Party across Europe; in this instance, 'green' is not used in the same sense as the colour of Irish Nationalism. For this reason, when they first ventured into Northern Irish politics, they cautiously called themselves the Ecology Party, so as to avoid any confusion.

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